What Comeback? For Many Indie Acts, the Touring Rebound Never Arrived

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When Live Nation reported $1.8 billion in first-quarter revenue in May, CEO Michael Rapino told investors, “Artists are back on the road and fan demand has never been stronger.” But while the concert business has largely returned to financial health in 2022 after a wobbly recovery last year, a number of acts eager to get back on the road and tap back into their primary income stream have instead found prohibitive costs that would significantly eat into or eliminate profits. And that has left them frustrated, if not furious, that the bullish picture painted by promoters and venues has eluded them.

A confluence of devastating economic factors — gas prices, artists flooding venues to make up revenue lost in the pandemic, airport chaos, supply chain shortages for tour buses, drivers, crew and equipment — has throttled even the heartiest of touring acts, especially indie artists. “The smaller shows are getting annihilated,” says Brian Ross, manager of Thievery Corporation, Guerilla Toss and Forty Feet Tall. He estimates net tour profits dropped 10% to 15% in spring and summer due to higher expenses.

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Since Rapino’s rosy report in the spring, numerous previously successful touring acts have canceled shows for a variety of reasons, from COVID-19 to mental health to expenses, including Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Ringo Starr, Jimmy Buffett and Animal Collective. “It’s pretty bad out there,” says Tom Windish, the Wasserman agency head of A&R who represents Billie Eilish, Tove Lo, Viagra Boys and others. “A lot of bands are going out on tour thinking they’re going to make money, and they came home and lost money.” Before the pandemic, Windish adds, many artists made their take-home pay on the “last 20% of the revenue — and now that 20% goes away.”

“It’s an extraordinarily challenging time,” says Joady Harper, founder and CEO of Rocky Road Touring, agent for U.K. bands The Mission, The Chameleons and Theatre of Hate, which postponed their 32-date triple bill club and theater tour until fall 2023 due to exorbitant costs and difficulties procuring visas. “Everybody’s sitting at home, twiddling their thumbs and counting their pennies, because the income they thought they’d have for that period just isn’t there.”

For Harper, whose company represents more than 50 acts, 2022 began in a “high spot,” with artists excited to hit the road post-quarantine and fans buying plentiful tickets. Then Russia invaded Ukraine, gas prices and plane fares shot up, and many tours were “no longer financially viable.”

“All of that on top of the already-tapped mental, spiritual, physical and emotional resources of just having made it through the past few years,” Santigold posted on Facebook in September when she announced she was canceling her tour. “Some of us are finding ourselves simply unable to make it work,” she wrote, striking a chord with frustrated musicians.

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With a larger number of acts booked into a pandemic-reduced number of venues, the concert business’ supply-and-demand mechanics have shifted as well. An act that drew 1,000 fans to a show might now wind up with 800 people, according to David T. Viecelli, Chicago agent for Pavement, Joanna Newsom, Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Wire. “There’s too much going on, and people aren’t going to four shows a week anymore,” he says.

Even for largely sold-out tours like Pavement, the no-show rate has spiked due to illness or fear of it, which means a drop in merchandise sales, he adds. “It kind of hits you from all sides.”

In order to stay on the road, artists are strategically cutting costs. Ann Henningsen, who manages singer-songwriter Chris Berardo, says he has been performing more frequently with his acoustic trio than his preferred six-man rock band. Ross says Guerilla Toss has cut down on hotels. Sam Luria, who manages New Zealand’s Broods, says the duo’s lighting director programs the technology remotely rather than traveling with the crew. “You’re getting a pretty similar outcome,” he says, “but saving a good amount of money.”

One solution is that bands who might have been poised for headlining tours are pairing with others — Bodysnatcher is opening for Hatebreed, for example. “Maybe you’re not going to sell the same level of merchandise you would, but eventually you will,” says Scott Givens, senior vp of rock and metal at MNRK, the label representing Bodysnatcher. “You don’t want anybody losing money.”

Givens is optimistic the touring economic storm will pass, hoping for a broader recovery in the world economy. “We’ll be fine,” he says. Jeff DeLia, manager of The Blind Boys of Alabama, A.J. Croce and others, acknowledges the financial pain but adds that his clients remain upbeat, telling him, “We know this isn’t going to last, and we’ve just got to fight through these things.”

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